“Too many people have lost sight of the fact that productive soil is essential to the production of food.” by: Hugh Hammond Bennett
On Monday, December 5th, the Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture announced their goal of advancing the sustainability of U.S. agriculture.
To achieve this goal, Field to Market seeks to engage 20% of productive acres of U.S. commodity crop production in its supply chain sustainability program by 2020. This is equivalent to 50 million acres.
At the time, two significant things about this announcement jumped out at me. First, this announcement was made on World Soil Day (Monday, December 5). This is certainly a statement to The Alliance’s support for soil conservation. The second notable thing was that the very first bullet point on The Alliance’s pledge list was to reduce soil erosion to tolerable levels or below, on all U.S. cropland. It is hard to miss the Alliance’s commitment for soil conservation and soil health.
In addition to reducing soil erosion to tolerable levels or below, the pledge contains 5 additional commitments including:
- improve land use efficiency
- solve regional water quality problems
- reduce greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. cropland
- solve regional water scarcity problems
- sustained improvement in energy in U.S. crop production
While I am wholeheartedly supportive of all of these commitments, I am especially pleased to see that soil conservation was at the top of the list. Conserving soils is linked directly to 4 of the other 5 commitments. By preventing soil erosion, we can have a positive impact on water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity and energy use. Here’s how I see it:
Solve regional water quality problems: Water quality is significantly affected by agricultural soil erosion. Disturbing soil through tillage and cultivation, leaving it without vegetative cover, can definitely increase the rate of soil erosion. Dislodged soil particles can be carried in runoff water and eventually reach surface water resources, including streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and wetlands. Sediment is the largest contaminant of surface water by weight and volume (Koltun et al. 1997), and is identified by states as the leading pollution problem in rivers and streams (USEPA, 1998) http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/873632/waterquality.pdf
Solve regional water scarcity problems: Organic matter behaves somewhat like a sponge, with the ability to absorb and hold up to 90 percent of its weight in water. A great advantage of the water-holding capacity of organic matter is that it will release most of the water that it absorbs to plants. Consider the issues with water scarcity in the Southwestern region of the United States. Farming is a very important economic factor in the southwest, providing stability to America’s agricultural production. However, most of the fresh water in the southwest is used for irrigation in agriculture – about 85% actually. The future of irrigated agriculture will depend in part on the ability of farmers to improve on-farm water management for crop production. http://www.noble.org/ag/soils/organicmatter/
Energy: The amount of fuel required for tillage depends on both the type and number of tillage operations. One single primary tillage operation usually requires one to two gallons of fuel per acre. Individual secondary tillage operations often require 0.6 to 0.7 gallons of fuel per acre. The fuel required to grow a bushel of corn can be reduced significantly with no-till farming. Emissions from direct energy use in the Kansas State University study were nearly 40% lower for no-till compared to tilled systems. This is due to reduced trips over the field. http://bipartisanpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/default/files/cwrice_report_30907_final.pdf
Greenhouse gas emissions: Soil ecosystems act as absorbers, reservoirs and emitters of GHGs. Soil erosion has a significant impact on the release of GHGs in two ways. First GHG emissions from soils are exacerbated by soil degradation, of which accelerated soil erosion is the most predominant and widespread form. Second, the redistribution of Soil Organic Carbon over the landscape, from soil erosion, in depressional sites may be prone to mineralization because of breakdown of aggregates.
The Alliance is comprised of 66 grower organizations including ag, food, beverage, restaurant, and retail companies, as well as conservation groups, universities, and public sector partners. They are striving to drive sustainable outcomes for corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice, potatoes and other crops in six key areas.